Monday, June 5, 2017

'Veer' Savarkar: Question His Politics, Not His Bravery or Patriotism. The Freedom Struggle and Jail Going.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is reverentially referred with the prefix 'Veer', 'courageous one'. A kerfuffle preceding the social media days is about letters written by Savarkar to the then colonial regime almost pleading to be released from the notorious Andaman where he was incarcerated and as bargain vowing to be apolitical if released. Quite a few hang on to this fact and question whether he deserves to be called 'Veer' Savarkar? Undoubtedly Savarkar is a brave patriot and he fully deserves that prefix. Here's why.

Every Indian school student learns that Savarkar and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, amongst many others, suffered inhuman conditions as prisoners of the colonial regime for the sin of agitating for India to become a free nation. However, there is more to suffering while being imprisoned than mere physical hardship and this remains a little understood or appreciated part.

Ganesh 'Babarao' Damodar Savarkar and humiliations heaped:

The pre-Gandhian era of India's freedom struggle was largely dominated by the triumvirate of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal, collectively called Lal-Bal-Pal. Given how large Gandhi looms over India's freedom struggle studies of the important pre-Gandhian era are sparse with attention to key personalities and few topics like the schism in Congress between the moderates and extremes. Lost in that miasma are, as I woefully discovered while researching on Veer Savarkar, stories about the likes of Ganesh Damodar Savarkar, called 'Babarao'.

Babarao Savarkar

The early 1900s saw India and even England, where Indians went to study, swell with a fervor of revolutionary activity, mostly violent even. The backdrop to most incidents was the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon. The Alipore Bombing case ensnared Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh. On 30th April 1908 Tilak was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and exile to Mandalay. On 8th June 1909 Ganesh Savarkar was sentenced to life imprisonment and transportation to Andaman. On 31st January 1911 Vinayak Savarkar received his second life imprisonment sentence after receiving the first on 24th December 1910. The sentences themselves tell us very little. It should be noted that the youngest Savarkar brother, Narayan Rao, also was arrested, released and re-arrested on various charges including the Jackson murder case for which Veer Savarkar was convicted. Essentially between 1908-11 all 3 Savarkar brothers were arrested and two of them faced the most gruesome life imprisonment.

With Tilak in jail in connection with the Alipore case Aurobindo Ghosh, now aged 48, retreated from politics and exiled himself to Pondicherry in 1910. Tilak was 52 when he was sentenced. Babarao (born 13th June 1879) was barely 30, Veer Savarkar (born 28th May 1883) was 27.

A Savarkar website maintained by Savarkarites gives a detailed biography, an uncritical one if you will, of Babarao's trials and the inhuman suffering imposed on him by the Raj. Life imprisonment and 'transportation' also meant confiscation of all property of the convicted person. Babarao's wife Yesuvahini (born 1885) was barely 24 and wife of a man declared 'enemy of the state' and a destitute with the state confiscating the already meager possessions. Yesuvahini, the Savarkar biography site, makes plain had little support as wife of the convicted Babarao and because practically many associates of Babarao in Nasik had been already arrested by the Raj.

The Raj decided to make an example out of Babarao by parading him in chains through the streets of Nasik. He was made to wear an yellow cap to signify that he was being sent to the dreaded 'Kaala Paani' prison and he had to balance a set of clothes and a water bag on his back. One has to remember that the Savarkars were, like Tilak, Chitpavan brahmins and for them the humiliations carried a sting that is too difficult to imagine today.

Revolutions are always forged by the literate and intellectual and in early twentieth century that was preponderantly the upper caste, especially Brahmins. Gandhi, a Bania, had to perform a purification service just for having left the Indian soil for education. Exile, that too to a prison, carried a stigma that we cannot sufficiently appreciate today. I cannot think of any other revolution when the upper crust of a society gladly went to jail when society would shudder at the very thought of that and it carried implications beyond the immediate, implications that ran counter to centuries of customs that those caste members held dear to their heart. These selfless sons of India were breaking out of their own caste molds in some ways, while holding on to some aspects too, as Tilak would do. In prison they had to cohabit with all, forsake their cherished privacy during morning ablutions, a sacrilegious thing to do, eat food cooked by those their fellow caste members would normally shun and above all pause and reflect what this meant for their women folk.

V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, writes in his autobiography, that one day he objected to being given food cooked by a Mudaliar caste member, V.O.C was belonged to Vellala caste. VOC insisted to the jail warden that he be served food cooked only a member of his caste or a Brahmin. He also added that he did so just to irritate the jail warden. But it does illustrate the boundaries that were being crossed or broken. Gandhi, imprisoned in South Africa, was horrified that he was incarcerated along with native criminals, blacks South Africans. Before we get all unrighteous on such frailties we need to put in perspective that this was a diminutive man in a foreign country with people he knew little of and understood very little at that time. He was just 24 when he landed in South Africa.

Subramania Bharathi published a detailed write up by Aurobindo Ghosh in his native newspaper about the circumstances in which he was arrested and his jail experiences. Ghosh says he heard that when the police barged into his home one of them pushed his sister with the butt of his rifle on her breast. The police then raided the home looking for incriminating evidence. Aurobindo, a Kayastha by birth (like Rajendra Prasad and Subhash Bose) and a one time student of King's College in Cambridge  must have found it humiliating beyond anything he had experienced.

The women folk visited their husbands in jail or had to go to lengths to keep their households running by stepping out of boundaries unthinkable until then. We cannot even fathom what such things meant then. Yesuvahini died broken hearted and a destitute while Babarao was in Andaman.

'Veer' Savarkar

'Veer' Savarkar was sentenced to 50 years life imprisonment and exile to Andaman. Savarkar appealed that his two life sentences should run concurrently but his appeal was turned down and he was sentenced to 'consecutive' terms. I cannot think of any man who would not have signed any paper to reduce even a portion of that. After all did not Christ himself, aware of the impending gory end, beseech his Father to take away the cup of suffering and cried out from the cross if his Father had forsaken him. Savarkar was human being.

Veer Savarkar

Savarkar was often manacled and made to do hard physical labor. Additionally he was also subject to solitary confinement for long periods. Modern psychology has influenced current attitudes that even hardcore criminals should not be kept in solitary confinement because it affects the minds irreparably.

Savarkar Solitary cell - Depicts him in manacles.

Subramania Bharathi, writing in his newspaper, protested that VOC, unlike political prisoners in England, was not being considered as a political prisoner but as a common criminal. Savarkar writes in a letter to the officials that he was "classed as 'D'", dangerous.

Bharathi's and Savarkar's letters: Surrender or just plain human?

In the aftermath of the arrests of VOC and others Subramania Bharathi, author of a poem titled 'Fearless', amongst many other firebrand nationalist poems, sought asylum in French ruled Pondicherry. As World War I raged Bharathi thought the Raj would not arrest him and re-entered British India at Cuddalore where he was promptly arrest on 20th November 1918. On 28th November he wrote to the Governor of Madras, in English, saying "I once again assure Your Excellency that I have renounced every form of politics, I shall even be loyal to the British government and law abiding...May God grant your Excellent a long and happy life" and signed "I beg to remain, Your's Excellency's most obedient servant".  Seeking to return to his native environs Bharathi had almost stopped writing fiery poems against the Raj since 1910. Bhararthi, we should remember, was a poet who was wallowing in penury throughout his life.

Recently published letters of Savarkar beseeching the Raj to release him kicked up a furor and combined with criticism of latter day sectarian politics, a militant vision of Hindu dominated India, attempts are being made to cast Savarkar as some sort of quisling and a coward.

In his letter dated November 14th 1913, after nearly two years in the dreaded Andaman prison, this has to be stated repeatedly, wrote that if released he'd "be the staunchest advocate of...loyalty to the British government". Nearly seven years later he writes his last fourth and last mercy petition on March 30th 1920 again pledging cooperation to the Raj by him and his brother.

It is beyond pettiness to use such letters to shame a man who along with his brothers had sacrificed so much for the sake of his nation. By 1920 the properties of both brothers, Babarao and Vinayak, were confiscated and Babarao' wife Yesuvahini had died. God knows how Vinayak Savarkar's wife Ramabhai, who he had married in 1901, lived with the loss of material and emotional comforts. Savarkar's letters, compared with Bharathi's, is no more abject.

Exile to even a neighboring city like Pondicherry, let alone a prison in Andaman, is not a simple affair in an era when people lived and died in a house they were born and rarely ventured beyond the city they lived. Displacement is a psychological phenomenon itself and more so as hunted or sentenced criminals.

As for serving the British Savarkar or Bharathi did little of that sort in reality. The Raj was too powerful to depend on the services of such broken men.

Nehru and the vicissitudes of imprisonment

We fail to sufficiently appreciate the fact that the oppressive colonial regime treated the freedom fighters, many of whom were very highly educated, as mere criminals. Being rebels against imperialism these were men and women of immense pride in addition to being accomplished intellects and such pride is quick to be hurt by the insulting look of a policemen let alone the humiliating conditions of their arrests, arraignments, sentencing etc.

Jawaharlal Nehru recounts the high handedness of the imperial regime in his autobiography. The Nehrus, during civil disobedience, refused, like they exhorted the farmers, to pay income tax and for which the regime attached their properties and at one time their luxurious home, Anand Bhavan, too appeared destined to be forfeited. Nehru's aging mother Swarup Rani, accustomed to near aristocratic living until then, had been wounded badly and left bleeding from a head injury on the road. Under Gandhi's leadership women, of varying socio-economic statuses, had come to the streets breaking centuries old societal taboos.

"Most of these gaol punishments", Nehru writes, "fell to the lot of boys and young men, who resented coercion and humiliation. A fine and spirited lot of boys they were, full of self-respect and 'pep' and the spirit of adventure, the kind that in an English public school or university would have received every encouragement and praise. Here in India their youthful idealism and pride led them to fetters and solitary confinement and whipping".

"My mother, Kamala and Indira, my daughter, had gone to interview my brother-in-law, Ranjit Pandit, in the Alahabad District gaol and for no of theirs, they were insulted and hustled out by the avoid the possibility of my mother being insulted by gaol officials, I decided to give up all interviews. Fo nearly seven months, while I was in Dehra Dun Gaol, I had no interview" recounts Nehru. If this was the plight of one of India's most well known and affluent family's women folk one can only imagine the plight of Yesuvahini and Ramabhai who were destitute and their husbands were in far off Andaman under life imprisonment.

Nehru confesses to getting treated better than many others but "gaol was gaol, and the oppressive atmosphere of the place was sometimes almost unbearable. The very air of it was full of violence and meanness and graft and untruth; there was either cringing or cursing...trivial occurrences would upset one. A piece of bad news in a letter, some item in the newspaper, would make one almost ill with anxiety or anger for a while....Sometimes a physical longing would come for the soft things of life- bodily comfort, pleasant surroundings, the company of friends, interesting conversation, games with children".

Perusing an atlas that he got while in prison Nehru in rhapsodic prose muses "An atlas was an exciting affair. It brought all manner of past memories and dreams of places we had visited and places we had wanted to go to. And the longing to go again to those haunts of past days, and visit all the other inviting marks and dots that represented great cities and cross the shaded regions that were mountains, and the blue patches that were seas".

India's 'fake-news' problem:

I've wondered in recent times whether India's 'fake-news' problem is the least spoken or recognized one. More often than not I've seen so many social media gleefully circulate online articles that wither praise, uncritically, their idols or trash, unfairly, those they don't like. Many of these articles carry questionable facts and outright lies. With little or no editorial supervision these articles have severely lack intellectual rigor.

Two article written for the online portal 'The Wire' by a person of unknown credentials, Pavan Kulkarni, is a prime example of such journalese. Titled provocatively, " How did Savarkar, a staunch supporter of British Colonialism, come to be known as 'Veer'? the article plays loose with facts and innuendo. Many who shared it happily did so just to burning their secular credentials in trashing a man widely blamed as sowing the seeds of today's sectarian politics and on whom a cloud of suspicion hangs regarding the assassination of the Father of the nation. Most did not even pause to question the article. All that mattered was they heard what they liked to hear.

The author says Savarkar 'actively collaborated with the English rulers' and furnishes as proof Savarkar recruiting volunteers for the British army while Bose was trying to raise an army to end the regime. Gandhi had been an active recruiter for the British in the World War I and Bose was being played like a violin by Hitler and Mussolini. Neither of those facts, themselves complex incidents, mattered little to the author. The worst act of commission was when the author says Savarkar was "implicated in Mahatma Gandhi's murder". Savarkar was acquitted in the court. A later column by the author seeks to explain how Savarkar escaped conviction. That is irrelevant, he was acquitted and no journalist, with any hint of ethics, would use the words 'implicated in the murder'. Yes, Savarkar was the intellectual godfather of the would-be assassin Nathuram Godse but he was acquitted in a court of law of the charges of conspiracy when the government was headed by Gandhi's disciples.

Kulkarni further  asserts that Savarkar's politics of Hindutva destabilized the freedom movement by encouraging a religious divide. The religious divide was real and persistent due to nearly 500 years of animosity that originated during the Muslim invasion and the many horrible blood baths of religious suppression that invaders committed upon the local Hindu population. Neither Savarkar nor the colonial regime, the latter is often accused of playing 'divide and rule', which they did, were solely responsible for the religious carnage that eventually happened during partition.

"Standing: Shankar Kistaiya, Gopal Godse, Madanlal Pahwa, Digambar Badge (Approver). Sitting: Narayan Apte, Vinayak D. Savarkar, Nathuram Godse

There is no contextualization of the much ballyhooed letters seeking release from life imprisonment. When finally Veer Savarkar steps out of prison he had served 10 years in Andaman in a cell and later a year in Ratnagiri. Tilak had become an acute diabetic in prison. Subramania Siva had become a leper due to prison conditions. VOC was a completely broken man coming out of prison and lived in grinding poverty. Aurobindo sought refuge in mysticism post 1910 after his acquittals. The Savarkar brothers suffered many ailments due to the harsh labor they had to do and due to the inhuman prison conditions.

A complex era and a complex history:

America's founding fathers were a curious bunch. Thomas Jefferson, as author of the declaration of Independence, considered the most soaring intellect amongst the founding fathers was also a bundle of contradictions who sired a child through slave mistress and during the Revolutionary war actually fled his home in Monticello to escape an invading army. Yet no serious scholar or student of history would be circulating articles calling Jefferson a turncoat or a bigot.

India's historians and textbook authors have not yet done a good job of explaining a hugely complex epochal era when a nation marched towards freedom and a newly forged identity. The intellectual currents that remade the society were seismic. The India of January 26th 1950, when a new constitution was adopted, was forged from a long history and yet so different from anything that had existed at any point in the several millennia that preceded it. This is an intellectual upheaval with no parallel in any country.

Savarkar's Hindutva, Tilak's atavism, Gandhi progressivism, Nehru's vision suffused with idealism and pragmatism should all be set against a context that was evolving as they shaped a nation and were shaped by it too.

Dadabhai Nauroji, called the 'Grand old man of India', opened a Congress session paying fulsome praise to the Raj and the blessings of the education made possible by them. 'Purna Swaraj', Complete Independence, was not even a goal of Congress until 1930. The Congress had been established in 1885.

No regime educated rebels at its finest universities as the colonial regime did. India's leaders, almost without exception, found their calling studying in British universities and rubbing with European ideas of liberty.

During my research I was stunned to realize how the figure of Mazzini and Garibaldi loomed in the imaginations of India's leaders. Veer Savarkar wrote a book on Mazzini, in 1907, that was hugely controversial. Bharathi told VOC of Mazzini's proclamation in English and upon VOC's request Bharthi immediately translated it into a Tamil poem forrm and published as part of his anthology of nationalist poems in 1908. Gandhi wrote to his son of Mazzini's 'Duties of man and other essays'.

Jawaharlal Nehru asked his sister Krishna Hutheesingh to send him a copy of Garibaldi's biography if his father had finished reading it and if not get a copy for him and another one for his daughter Indira. V.V.S Iyer, an erudite intellectual, wrote about Garibaldi for Bharati's 'India' magazine in 1909.

Researching for this topic reiterated to me once again the futility of armed insurrection and the wisdom of Gandhian struggle and how completely he dominated the years between 1920-1947. Tilak died on the day Gandhi had proposed to start his civil disobedience movement on August 1st 1920. By 1920 Aurobindo, Savarkar, V.V.S. Aiyar, C.R. Das, Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bipin Chandra Pal, Naoroji, had all either died or retreated from active politics or aged and marginalized thus setting the stage for the Mahatma to lead the country in a new path that would eventually lead to the day that India's poet laureate sang of, 'lovely dawn on freedom that breaks in gold and purple over an ancient capital'.

All of them lawyers by profession with a very varied family background ranging from aristocratic to poverty ridden they all imbibed ideas avariciously and stamped them in return with their own persona. Savarkar, a product of the violent revolutionary era, became radicalized in prison and became an avowed Hindu nationalist. While I completely reject that idea as a basis for the country I'd pay heed to it as an important voice in an era when a new nation was being incubated. Today that idea  should have no currency and is eating into the fragile intellectual institutions of India. While Savarkar or Tilak or Gandhi or Nehru can all be criticized for their ideas it is sheer villainy to question their patriotism or to belittle their sacrifices.


1. Biography of Babarao from
2. Savarkar biographical timeline
3. The other Savarkar
4. V.D. Savarkar
5. Sri Aurobindo
6. A comprehensive list of books read by Gandhi
7. Pavan Kulkarni's article
8. 'Hollow myth of Veer Savarkar' -
9. V.V.S. Iyer a short bio
10. Jefferson's 'Flight from Monticello'
11. Collected works of Bharathi anthology - Ed. Seen Viswanathan Volume 4 (page 90 - Mazzini); Volume 5 (page 512 - Aurobindo's letters to his wife); Volume 7 (page 83 -- Aurobindo's article on his arrest and raid in his home); Volume 11 (Page 145 - Naoroji speech; Page 346 - letter renouncing politics)


anilkurup59 said...

Thank you very much for wonderful narrative. You are right. Savarkar's patriotism should not be questioned , but his bigotry of HINDUTVA MUST BE AND THAT IS WHAT PUSHES HIM INTO THE LEAGUE OF QUISLINGS.

anilkurup59 said...

But perhaps you left untouched the possible fact that a chastised Savarkar helplessly bulldozed by the prison system chose to be reincarnate in the avatar of a Hindutva and thus became a pliable and useful tool for the British in their divide and rule rigmarole.

Gurudatta Acharya said...

Pavan Kulkarni looks like a ghost writer for he has no sm presence whatsoever

Unknown said...

Well over half a century ago I was advised by mentor an ICS man who had a formidable reputation as a correct fair and strong officer, That I must put myself in the shoes of anyone who came with a problem. That sort of advice is not useful for climbing the ladder but makes you a better human being and certainly a better public servant. You have tried to imagine the plight of those who truly sacrificed and grievously suffered in the early struggles when the British were most brutal in dealing with freedom fighters. That by itself is remarkable. We Tamils seem to have lost it.

Unknown said...

The last sentence is something we need to heed to. Well said.

raghupathiv said...

Really an eye opener
Happy that my shared post resulted in to a republish and I am thankful

வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

balanced and cool headed article

veera said...